Different Feelings On Columbus Around The World

Americans tend to think that in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he claimed this land for Spain, and simply went home. But Columbus played a huge role in the history of the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Columbus Day is one of celebration and protest in Latin America. Host Michel Martin speaks with author Timothy Kubal about how the holiday has turned from a day praising Columbus as the colonizer to the Day of Indigenous Resistance.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next on this Columbus Day holiday here in the U.S., we turn elsewhere to look at how Christopher Columbus is regarded in Latin America.

Now, of course, most of us remember the little ditty from grade school. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And of course, that narrative seems to suggest that Christopher Columbus simply arrived, claimed this land for Spain and went on back home.

But Columbus continued his journey, and his explorations played an important role in the history of the Caribbean and Central and South America. In fact, Columbus Day is a day of celebration and protest and reflection in Latin American countries, as well.

We wanted to know more, so we've called author Timothy Kubal. He wrote the 2008 book "Cultural Movements and Collective Memory: Christopher Columbus and the Rewriting of the National Origin Myth." He's a professor of sociology at California State University Fresno, and he's with us now. Welcome, professor, thanks so much for joining us.

Professor TIMOTHY KUBAL (Author, "Cultural Movements and Collective Memory: Christopher Columbus and the Rewriting of the National Origin Myth"): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So when did Columbus Day celebrations, if that is indeed what they are, start in Latin America? And what did they look like?

Prof. KUBAL: Well, the early days of such celebrations really didn't come about until Latin American countries started to demand their own freedom from colonization.

So we saw the Columbus Day, or Dia de la Raza is what it was traditionally called, beginning throughout Latin Americas in the early 1800s. And it's at this time that the holiday is mostly a patriotic holiday. So we see similar remnants of what we see today in Spain. We see military marches, parades, which is a very conservative, patriotic type of holiday.

MARTIN: Now, you know, when a holiday is named for a person, it tends to come with a narrative. So what was the narrative? And is it still the narrative of how the holiday is observed?

Prof. KUBAL: What I found is that there are many narratives, and they co-exist, certainly there's the traditional narrative. But anytime you have a, as you say, a holiday focused on an individual, you do have an opening for creating alternative narratives.

So you have the importance of the colonizer, the importance of Spanish culture, and the importance of the development of the Hispanic race from the Spanish colonizers.

And the other narrative, which is that mixed race, that mestizo race that developed, is primarily one of being proud of your Indian heritage. That's the narrative that's become more popular in recent eras, but it coexisted even in the early years.

MARTIN: And that's what I was going to ask you is when did that start because we know, of course, you know, now there are a number of leftist leaders like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador who promote indigenous culture and promote indigenous pride. Did the focus on indigenous culture start before these leaders started promoting that aspect?

Prof. KUBAL: Absolutely. It points to the political nature of this particular holiday when we have the leaders like Morales and Chavez in particular latching onto this holiday and using it to highlight ethnic distinctions in their countries for political reasons. This is something that in fact it is not new.

The impetus for the change, for the growth of this counter-narrative that Chavez really popularized comes about in the days leading up to 1992. Spain was celebrating. Of course, everybody was celebrating. This was the 500-year anniversary. But Spain was sponsoring World's Fair in 1992, and there was a lot of pomposity about the patriotism of this particular day.

And the groups in Mexico City and many cities throughout Latin America had started to come together around protesting this holiday. So the real growth of this counter-narrative comes at about 1987 or 1988.

Starting about 1988 and up to about 1994, there was a distinct pattern of events that went on every Columbus Day. And the first half of the event was a celebration of ethnic culture.

This is where they would sing ethnic songs. They would display ethnic clothes. They would share ethnic foods and stories, and they would speak in ethnic languages in the speeches.

In the second half of the event, they would often travel to a Columbus statue that was usually in the center square of the city, and they would hold a protest event, which was a much more angry rather than a celebration of an ethnic culture, this was an angry event where they talked about injustices. And they talked about the horrors of colonization and so on and so forth. And they would sometimes throw rocks, eggs and other projectiles at statues, and even in some cases, as in Venezuela, they actually tore down that statue.

MARTIN: And as we said, in 2002, Hugo Chavez declared Columbus Day to be the day of indigenous resistance, which is now an official government holiday.

Prof. KUBAL: That's right. But this was not just a name change. This was a fundamental change in the relationship between the governments and indigenous people.

And Columbus Day was sort of a symbol of this, that we were going to, instead of celebrating the colonizer, we are going to celebrate the colonized. And Chavez used the day to do many symbolic actions to help the indigenous people.

He announced the distribution of thousands of acres of land, along with free tractors from the government. He also kicked out Christian missionaries on Columbus Day, another symbolic act of supporting the colonized.

So this holiday of the day of indigenous resistance is more than just the symbolism of a name change, but a day that's been used as a vehicle to talk about the redistribution of resources to indigenous people.

MARTIN: So that was eight years ago. How about now?

Prof. KUBAL: Much of the political fervor that existed around the holiday has really sort of waned off. Of course, still in Venezuela and Bolivia, you still see Hugo Chavez. He's got a weekly radio and television program, where he still rails against Columbus and talks about supporting decolonization. And Hugo Chavez is not the only one.

So we still see some political use of this holiday, but it doesn't seem to mobilize the masses the way it used to.

MARTIN: Timothy Kubal is a professor of sociology at California State University Fresno. He wrote the book "Cultural Movements and Collective Memory: Christopher Columbus and the Rewriting of the National Origin Myth." And he joined us from member station KVPR in Fresno. Professor, thanks so much for joining us.

Prof. KUBAL: Thank you.

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